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geeking out on shakespeare's histories
[FICATHON] The Sorcerer's Apprentice, for gehayi 
3rd-Sep-2011 04:19 pm
richard iii squees
Title: The Sorcerer's Apprentice
Author: the_alchemist
Plays: Henry VI Parts 2-3, Henry IV Part 1
Recipient: gehayi
Character(s)/Pairing(s): Richard [the not yet] III; Margaret/Suffolk; Margaret/Henry; Edmund Mortimer; Lady Mortimer; the rest of the York family; Bolingbroke; Margaret Jourdain; 'a bard of Ireland'.
Warnings: moderate violence and gore; one bit of icky non-consensual panty-sniffing; about as much fidelity towards Shakespeare!canon as Shakespeare had towards history!canon.
Rating: 15
Summary: Kind of like 'Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer', if 'Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer' contained considerably more necromancers, pirates, blood, death, sexual perversion and, of course, Plantagenets.

ONE

"... but why not?" The Duke of York smiled, and laid his hand on his wife's shoulder. "Yes, it's unconventional, but Richard is unconventional–"

The Duchess snorted. "That's one way of putting it," she said, moving his hand away.

The had been apart for six months: he fighting alongside their two eldest sons; she praying alongside their daughters; both trying not to think about their youngest son, who, contrary to all expectations, showed no sign of being about to die. Now they were back together, and alone, finally, behind the heavy velvet curtains of the marital bed, the question of Richard was no longer avoidable.

"Anyone can see he has aptitude, Cecily, and this way he might actually be of use to us one day. We need to move with the times. The Lancastrians already employ six or seven top class witches, and the Frenchwoman herself–"

"Exactly," interrupted the Duchess. "Lancastrian nonsense. Magic's all very well as an after dinner entertainment, but the idea of using it in battles is ridiculous. Even your Uncle Mortimer had more sense than to mix his ... hobbies with the business of fighting." She paused. She hadn't been intending to bring this up yet, she had wanted more time to prepare him, but since they were talking about their youngest son's future, and since the Duke was all for sending him off to the same Uncle Mortimer to be apprenticed in witchcraft, she felt she had no choice."If you want him to be useful," she continued, "why can't we send him to a monastery to pray for his brothers' success?"

"Richard? In a monastery?" The Duke laughed. "The poor monks wouldn't last five minutes."

The Duchess smiled dangerously. "Choose the right monastery," she said, "and it's Richard who won't–" Seeing her husband's expression, she checked herself. "I talked about it with my confessor last week," she said. "He knows a wonderful place, a Cistercian community up in one of the Scottish islands. They're very good with ... troubled youths." Very strict. With thick walls and well-made locks.

But the Duke's mind was set. And the Duchess was not like a harridan like the Frenchwoman, and neither was her husband a weakling like the funny little man whom the Frenchwoman had married, the man who called himself their king. So within the fortnight, Richard was packed up and sent to Wales, to live with his great-uncle Mortimer. 'At least it's far away,' thought the Duchess, wistfully thinking of tall cliffs, wild beasts and bands of outlaws.

TWO

The cottage only had one room to speak of, but it would have been large were it not for the fact that books lined the walls at least three deep. The armchair was dead centre, like a throne, propped up with more books. Bunches of herbs, animal bones, crockery, clothes, all lay around in heaps.

The old man slept. He never did much else nowadays. He dreamt of the past, of the smell of his wife's hair, of her singing and her laugh.

When knocking on the door didn't work, the boy cautiously opened it. At that the old man jerked awake. "You're early!" he said.

"S ... sorry," said the boy.

"Well," said the man. "It's out the side door. You can probably smell it."

The boy blinked and stared at him. The old man stared back, tilting his head so it was parallel with the boy's.

"What's out the side door?" said the boy at last.

"Why are you that shape?" said the old man.

"I don't know," said the boy. "My mother says it's God's judgment. What's out the side door?"

"You don't look very strong," said the old man. "Mrs Jenkins said you were a big boy."

"Who's Mrs Jenkins?"

The old man looked at him more closely. "You're not Mrs Jenkins' son?" he said at last.

"No," said the boy. "I'm the Duke of York's son. I'm Richard."

"But you have come to fill in my privy, and dig me a new one?"

"No!" to his fierce shame, Richard felt tears springing into his eyes. This place was filthy and it stank. He had been looking forward to coming here, to getting away from his mother and brothers, to learning how to do something useful; he dreamed that in his new tutor he'd find an ally. But the old man was as rude to him as Edward and George, and even the Duchess had never tried to make Richard dig privies.

"Well, why have you come?" The old man's eyes narrowed, and his hand crept towards the hilt of his dagger.

"So you can teach me magic," he said. "You wrote to my father a few months ago offering to tutor one of his children or followers, and he wrote back saying he was sending me."

"Oh," said the old man dismissively. "Letters." He gestured towards a pile of them, most with the seals still intact. "Well, let's take a look at you then. Stand in the sunlight."

Reluctantly, Richard picked his way over the detritus, and stood still as Mortimer's watery blue eyes ranged over his defects: his unequally sized legs, his twisted spine, his lop-sided head.

"How old are you?" asked Mortimer.

"Fourteen," said Richard.

"Why do you want to learn magic?"

Richard opened his mouth to reply, but the old man interrupted him before he could get a word out. "Tell the truth," he said.

And, against his will, Richard did. "So I can make girls like me," he said, and blushed, perceiving he was being controlled by magic, and hating himself for letting that happen.


"Bad reason," said the old man. "Just go to a brothel if that's what you want."
"I don't want to have to pay them," he said. "It wouldn't be the same."

"It's not the same if you compel them by magic either."

"Well then," said Richard. "So I can fix this." With repugnance, he gestured to his own body, still illuminated by the dusty sunlight.

"Impossible," said the old man. "Or nearly so. My wife, when she was alive, could have perhaps–" He stopped himself, and shook his head. "But not now. There's no-one living who could manage that. Why else?"

"So I can make my father king."

"Ah," said Mortimer, "now that's a better reason. And so your brother can be king after him, and then your brother's son, and so on for all eternity?"

"Maybe," said Richard. Then, quickly: "if it's God's will."

The old man smiled. "Well done," he said.

Richard frowned. "What for?" he said.

"You have talent. It's not many that can learn to resist so quickly when I want them to tell the truth."

THREE

The Duke of Suffolk looked around him: it was the strangest Council of War he had ever seen. For a start, he was the only warrior there. His lover Marguerite presided, wearing the new Burgundian gown he had bought her, gold brocade, its deep, v-shaped neckline edged with ermine plunging to her waist, with only a tiny placket, low and tight, covering her delightfully rounded breasts. Yes, that really was a success, wasn't it?

"My Lord of Suffolk?" she said in the tone of one who was repeating herself.

Suffolk looked up at her face. "Your Grace?" he said, then glanced guiltily at her husband, who was sitting on her left, but King Henry was staring out of the window watching a pair of pigeons fighting over a worm.

"What do you think, my Lord, to the suggestion that we should abandon–"

"For the time being," interrupted one of the witches, a gnarled old woman called Marjorie Jordain.

"Abandon for the time being," continued Marguerite, "our research into using magic as a means to propel large projectiles, and instead concentrate on using it to improve our capacity for hand-to-hand fighting?"

Suffolk thought for a moment. "I say both," he said. "The problem with the latter is that it involves putting more power into the hands of our common soldiers and as recent events in Kent have shown, that is not necessarily in our interests."

With the exception of Marjorie, the witches Marguerite was employing (five women and three men) nodded in agreement.

"Henry?" asked Marguerite, gently placing her hand on her husband's shoulder.

He turned to them, his large eyes seeming more watery even than usual. "It seems to me," he said, "that England is little different to those poor birds out there, quarrelling needlessly over what the Lord has given them to share."

Everyone else looked out of the window, with embarrassed, polite expressions on their faces. As though on cue the worm dropped to the ground. Henry sighed. "Alas, poor England," he said.

Marguerite coughed. "Thank you," she said. "Yes, it is indeed imperative that we bring this dreadful war to an end as soon as we can, and teach the people once more to obey their rightful King, because that is the only way there can be a true and lasting peace."

"Yes indeed," said Henry, trying to look enthusiastic about it all.

"So where do you think we should concentrate our efforts to develop the New Warfare in the area of Artillery or of Infantry?"

Henry looked lost.

"If I might interpose," interrupted one of the male witches, a clergyman called Bolingbroke. "I realise that my report on intelligence gathering was not to be given until later in the meeting, but I feel there is a matter which is of some relevance here."

Marguerite graciously nodded her assent.

"My scryers report that York's youngest son has been sent to Wales to live with Mortimer."

"Mortimer?" said Marguerite, blinking. "I thought he was our prisoner? Wasn't he in the Tower?"

"You let him go," said Bolingbroke. "There was some advice to the effect that he was a harmless old lunatic."

"Nonsense!" said Marguerite. "Even if it wasn't for his ... abilities ... well, we all know who his mother was." Philippa. The only child of Edward III's second son, which certain traitors might think meant he had more right to the throne than the Yorks (descended from his third son, but disgraced through their own treachery) and the Lancasters (descended from his fourth son) put together.

"You signed the paper yourself," said Bolingbroke. He coughed. "This was before you had taken advisors of our sort, madam. I fear that you were unprotected from unfortunate influences."

Marguerite glared at him. "Well, " she said. "We must rectify our error at once. York's sent his youngest son to him, you say? Why?"

"He thinks the boy shows great aptitude for magic."

Suffolk laughed. "George!?" he said. "That boy doesn't show aptitude for anything apart from drinking."

"Not George," said Bolingbroke. "And not Edward either. There's another one. They've always kept him locked up because he's a cripple or a halfwit or something."

"Richard," said Marguerite. "Yes, I've heard of him. Met him, in fact. He looks like a toad, but less symmetrical. I assumed he was dead, to tell you the truth: he didn't look like the kind of boy who lives to be a man."

"Well," said Suffolk. "Surely we can kill two toads with one stone? And if you don't think it can be trusted to an employee, I rather fancy a jaunt over to Wales myself."

"Thou shalt not suffer witches to live," put in Henry, suddenly. "Yes, that is best."

Marguerite patted him on the shoulder. The eight other witches around the table looked at one another, some nervous, some angry. Then Henry looked round at them, as though for the first time. "My love," he said. "Are you sure that what you're doing with these ... people, is godly? How is it different from what poor Gloucester's wife was doing?"

Marguerite sighed. "Oh my love," she said. "I do admire your scruples, but we've been over this before. The word the bible uses actually means 'necromancer', not 'witch'. On the day you find me raising corpses from the dead, then you may burn me, but God has given us witchcraft to use, and to hide it under a bushel would be a sin."

FOUR

Once, they had been a proper coven, with thirteen witches. The most famous coven in Britain, in fact, and young Ned Mortimer ran away from his home, his family, his claim to the throne, everything, to meet the famous Owain Glyn Dŵr, to show his skills and to beg admittance to it. This he won, along with the love and eventually the hand of Owain's daughter, Catrin ferch Glyn Dŵr.

Now Owain was gone, and Catrin was gone, and all the others gone too except for Seamus Macmorris, Irish bard and prophet, whose curly auburn locks had fallen to a few grey strands, and whose strong, dulcet voice had turned to a hoarse croak.

"And how's that boy of yours?" asked Seamus, leading Mortimer down, as he did each month, to sit at his kitchen table. "He seemed like a good lad."

Mortimer laughed. "Richard? I'm not sure I'd call him 'good', but he's an able witch and a dedicated student. Too dedicated, if anything. He squanders my candles staying awake to read until past midnight - and not just magic - he's learning Welsh too - and then he's up at dawn training."

"Training?"

"He wants to use magic to make himself into a warrior. I didn't think it was possible at first, but he's already stronger and faster than men twice his size."

"It must be time for him to think of joining a coven." Seamus dreamed of reviving Coven Glyn Dŵr, recruiting new members, perhaps coaxing back some of Owain's grandchildren.

"Not him," said Mortimer. "He wants to go back to England, make his father king."

"That reminds me," said Seamus. "That prophecy I had for him last time we met - I fear my second sight is failing as quickly as my first sight - it wasn't cosmetics I should have warned him against: there was more. He won't live long after he's seen Rougemont."

"That makes more sense," laughed Mortimer. "But are you sure you've got it right this time?"

"Quite sure." There was a pause, while both old men sipped their spiced wine. "Or something that sounded a lot like that, anyway. My hearing isn't what it was either."

*****

Mortimer knew something was wrong while still hobbling down the path that led to his cottage. He tried to move more quickly, but his old legs threatened to topple him over. Had his precautions failed him? They were his masterpiece. A network of magic that stretched across the whole of the country and beyond, keeping tabs on all those who had reason to want him dead, providing early warnings and where necessary even taking action.

He threw open the door. "Richard? Richard?"

There was a feeble groan from the loft where the boy - the young man, he should say - had his bed.

"Richard? What is it? What happened?"

Richard made a noise that sounded like he was trying to speak. Bracing for the effort, Mortimer grasped both sides of the ladder and started the ascent.

On the bed there were books - Welsh books, books Mortimer hadn't taken from the shelf since his wife died. He remembered them though, and he remembered that first conversation. Why do you want to learn magic? So I can fix this. Richard looked awful. Half flattened, as though he'd started to melt his own bones, his jaw drooping sideways. Presumably he'd been trying to remould them into a better shape.

"You stupid boy," groaned Mortimer. And ignoring Richard's desperate attempts to communicate, he snatched up all the books, threw them down the ladder, then climbed down after them.

Mortimer remembered what his own master, Glyn Dŵr himself, had told him when he was Richard's age. The kind of magic that alters human bodies is the very hardest kind, at least if you mind whether or not you kill the bodies you're altering. It would be possible - he had no doubt of that - and the answers would be somewhere in Catrin's books. But his eyes were failing him, his Welsh was failing him and most of all his abilities as a witch were failing him: what he could see he couldn't understand, and what he could understand he couldn't do. "It's no use," he said aloud.

The boy had fallen silent now. Mortimer wondered whether he was dead. He imagined a father's wrath: imagined having the Yorkists out to kill him as well as the Lancastrians. It was fear as well as his old knees that stopped him from climbing the ladder again to look.

"Oh Catrin," he said. "I miss you, my love. Come back to me." His hand crept towards the locket at his breast, which contained a lock of her red hair. It felt warm. From his own body heat, he supposed. And there it was again, that dark voice at the back of his head, the one he'd heard since the day she died. "Of course, there is a way ..." He shook his head, as though to shake out the demon whispering to him. No. He'd met a necromancer once, or at least a woman who'd been accused of it. She was a little shrivelled thing with wide, frightened eyes. They'd kept her in the prison cell next to hers, and all day and night she would keep up this quiet, high-pitched wail, while she hugged her knees. When they gave her a knife to eat with, she used it to cut her own limbs until she was sitting in a little pool of blood.

From upstairs in the loft came another groan. Not dead then. Mortimer hauled himself up from his armchair and went again to see the boy. What had he done to himself? It was a miracle he hadn't died at once, and would be another miracle if his skull hadn't crushed his brain and robbed him of his wits. Richard's ribcage lurched up and down as he fought to get enough air into his compressed lungs. His jaw was grotesquely twisted to one side making comprehensible speech impossible. And who knows what other damage there was?

Just then, Mortimer felt a pain in his own chest. Half-forgetting his arthritis, he staggered down from the ladder and towards the scrying glass that lay in a heap of old cloaks in the corner of the room. Someone was out to kill him, and they were getting closer. Doing his best to block out the boy's groans, he focussed his mind on perceiving the danger. The Duke of Suffolk. Approaching by sea. He had plans for this. He had plans for everything. The boy would have to wait.

First, he attempted to enter Suffolk's own mind. Too well protected. The Lancastrians were learning their lesson. Then, one by one, he tried the other sailors, in the hope he could get one of them to sink the ship. No good. Forcing himself to be methodical, he searched the surrounding sea for sharks to suborn. Nothing. Another ship though. Pirates, it seemed, and undefended against magic. He slipped easily into one of their minds.

"Um," he made the pirate say, wondering how on earth to sound nautical but genuine. "Well, look here, mateys." The others were staring at him. "What's that dot on the horizon, there? What say you we make for it, and see if we can't plunder us some treasure?"

One of the other pirates said a rude word at him, and the others ignored him. Sighing, he retreated back into his own body.

It wasn't hopeless though. He had seen there were about twenty pirates, and although they had no captain, three or four of them were more powerful than the others. Mind-controlling one wouldn't work, as the others would oppose him. But if he could take two or ideally three, then he was fairly sure they could make them attack Suffolk. But it was impossible for one witch to occupy more than one mind at a time. If only Richard hadn't ... But there was no time for that kind of thought. Seamus. He lived two miles away. If Mortimer walked as fast as he could ... but no. Seamus had said he would be travelling to visit his niece that afternoon, and she lived in Haverfordwest. If only Catrin hadn't ... Again, Mortimer's hand crept towards the locket. Then, not allowing himself to think, he took a strand of hair, chalked a circle on the floor and did all the things that were needful.

Oh, she was beautiful! Had she been that beautiful in life? Mortimer longed to take her in his arms, but there was nothing to take. She was only a spirit.

"Why did you wake me, my love?" she said, in Welsh.

"I'm in danger," said Mortimer, inexpertly twisting his tongue around her language. "Terrible danger."

*****

Catrin managed to patch Richard up enough that he could speak, and dull his pain sufficiently that he could co-operate, but he couldn't move from the bed, and so Mortimer had to drag himself up there. Catrin herself, of course, simply flowed like air.

"So," said Mortimer. "Do you understand?"

Richard groaned. "Can't she straighten me a bit more first?" he said.

"No time," said Mortimer. "It'll be your reward when we're finished." Then he repeated his instructions, this time in Welsh: even now, Catrin would not admit to understanding a word of English. "I will take the big pirate with the red shirt; Catrin, you take the dark-skinned fellow; Richard, yours is the one with the curly beard."

Richard whimpered, a new spasm of pain racking his twisted body. "I'm sorry," he said. "I don't know if I can–"

"Of course you can," said Mortimer. "You've done mind control a dozen times before, and none of these fellows knows the first thing about magic. Now, let's go."

*****


It was Richard, in the form of the curly-bearded pirate, who struck the final blow. He relished feeling his sword cleave through the flesh, the sinew and bone; savoured the look on Suffolk's face; and the sound it made when the head fell to the ground, the body collapsing soon afterwards. He looked up and felt the sea breeze on his face; stretched out his long, strong, straight limbs. He could get used to this.

"Let's send his head back to the Frenchwoman," he suggested. He'd seen her once. She was beautiful, and hadn't hid her disgust at how he looked. He imagined with pleasure her face as she opened a box to find her lover's head.

The red-shirted pirate shrugged. "Whatever you wish," he said. "But it's time to go home now."

Richard paused, wondering whether the consequences of staying in the pirate's body were as dire as Mortimer had warned him.

"If anything, more dire," said Mortimer.

Richard glared at him: unsolicited mind-reading between witches was considered very rude. But regretfully, he allowed his consciousness to seep back into his own body.

Richard had tried to give up thinking about how rubbish it was to be him rather than someone else, like his father or Edward or George. After all, he reckoned he could take any of them in a fight now, and hoped it wouldn't be long before he could take all of them together. And he'd always been the cleverest of the brothers. Those were the things that really mattered: women, like everything else, could always be bought. Besides, there just wasn't time to lie around moping.

Or at least, there hadn't been time until now. Now he couldn't do anything, couldn't even feed himself, couldn't do anything but lie around and mope.

Maybe he wasn't the cleverest after all. Even George (so far as Richard remembered) hadn't ever done anything as stupid as to deliberately melt his own bones. The first thing Mortimer said when they got back from being pirates was that he didn't deserve to get fixed.

Richard would have shrugged if he could. "So kill me then," he said. "I don't care."

Mortimer sighed and patted Richard's leg. "Catrin?" he said.

Catrin. Richard had never seen a ghost before. And neither had he ever had a beautiful lady sit on his bed. The combination of the two reactions to these events, along with the shame and the growing physical pain made for a very confusing emotional cocktail indeed.

"I don't know," said Catrin in Welsh. "Certainly I can help him. But get him back to normal? I don't know."

"Oh, he was never normal," said Mortimer.

*****

Catrin stayed with them for three weeks. After the first one, Richard could walk again, and after the second he was almost the same as he was before, though his back was more twisted and - worse - his left arm was shrunken up like a withered shrub and next to useless. This, Catrin said, she could do nothing about. Then, during the last week, she seemed to fade a little each day, becoming harder to see, harder to hear. Her magic also became weaker.

Richard wished the cottage were bigger or his hearing less acute as he lay awake listening to his Uncle Mortimer speak words of love to her, and then words of desperation as he begged her to stay, told her of his loneliness. It was a little bit disgusting to hear his tutor say those things, to hear him sob. Richard put his hand over his ear, rolling over on his side so the other one was pressed against the pillow, so he was alone in his own silent little world. Alone. Women, like everything else, could always be bought. No. The old man and his ghostly wife showed him that was a lie.

FIVE

"Do it!" Marguerite's eyes were bright with fury now as well as tears.

"Madam," said Bolingbroke. "With all respect, I simply cannot. Necromancy is forbidden by law, by sacred scripture, and by your husband, my king's express command." And besides, what use to you is your lover's disembodied head? No, on second thoughts, I don't want to know.

"Please," she said. "I beg you. Not forever, just so I can say goodbye. Just so–" She looked down at the object in her hands and started to weep. "Oh, my Suffolk." Oblivious to its none-too-fresh state, she held its cheek against her own.

Bolingbroke looked delicately away, concentrating very hard on not throwing up. "Madam," he said, "you are yourself an accomplished witch. Search in the castle library for a book called Nox Lemuribus by Iohannes Mortuis. It was not I who told you this. Now excuse me, I must go."

*****

Alone in the chapel, Henry prayed. He was lonely. He wished his wife would share his bed that night, but she wanted to be alone, as so often she did. In the past he had worried that ... well, she had always seemed so close to the Duke of Suffolk. But now he was dead and still she preferred to be alone.

*****

Marguerite had abandoned her elegant henin and tied her hair up in a simple coif, like a dairymaid. Indeed it was in the dairy she worked, having expelled the women there on the pretext of desiring to make some special cheese for her husband. She hoped that it would be cold enough to stay the decay that was starting to take hold of her dear Suffolk's beloved features.

She rolled up the sleeves of her kirtle and shift (the ornate outer gown with its hanging sleeves having been shed hours ago) and tried yet again. This time, she felt the power surging up through her feet, up her spine and into her hands. Oh yes, this was more like it. Then she felt something jolt from her fingertips, and then it was with fear in her heart as well as joy that she saw one of the eyelids flicker ...

*****

Everyone in the castle who had an ounce of magic in their blood felt it. Marjorie Jourdain, dreaming as she always did of cannonballs, lurched awake, knowing that somewhere close, someone had done something very powerful and very forbidden. Bolingbroke sighed as he turned over in bed. So she had managed it then. He hadn't really thought she would. Time to get away, something told him. Time to escape. Maidservants found themselves restless without knowing why; grooms and valets held their stomachs and groaned, blaming overindulgence at the table.

Henry slept soundly, however, in the midst of a delightful dream in which he played at cards with the Marguerite, the Duke of York and Jesus, while Our Lady danced a Pavane with John the Baptist.

*****

"Oh my God," groaned Suffolk. "My head. What the hell was I drinking last night?"

Marguerite stared, her heart beating fast. She hadn't considered this bit, and breaking bad news was never her forte. She decided to do what Suffolk himself would do, and make a weak joke. "It's not a hangover," she said. "And the good news is that from now on you're going to be able to drink as much as you like without ever getting a hangover again."

SIX

The thing they never tell you about war, mused the Duke of York, lying back on his camp bed, is how boring it is. They were besieging Barnard Castle, and it looked as though it was going to be a very long, very cold wait before anything happened. But once it did, it would be worth it. The Frenchwoman was in there, and York's spies believed that Henry himself was in there too.

Suddenly there was a small commotion outside his tent. Drawing his dagger, the Duke leapt to his feet.

An adjutant walked in, saluted, but before he could speak, someone else joined him. The adjutant glared. "Sir," he said, "this ... person says he wants to see you, says he's your–"

"Richard!" said the Duke of York, breaking into a broad smile. "Yes, yes, you can go. He is my son."

It wouldn't be true to say that Richard had changed beyond all recognition. His uneven gait, his twisted spine and most of all his strange dark eyes marked him out - had always marked him out, and would always mark him out - as different from his father, his brothers, from everyone. However, the thin, sickly boy was now a man with strong limbs, and the fear in those eyes of his was hidden beneath a gaze of grim determination that even his father could not long bear to meet.

"I've come to help you," said Richard. "I've come to help you take the castle."

The door flap opened and in walked Edward, even taller and blonder than when Richard had left him. "Father, I ... oh, Richard." Edward looked to his father for a cue. Should he be pleased or disappointed that his brother was back? Was the boy a beloved family member, or an embarrassing burden?

Richard ignored his brother and continued to look at his father. "I want to fight with you," he said. "Let me prove myself."

The Duke of York's smile faltered a little. He loved his son, but God knew how unaptly He had made the boy for fighting. He would do almost anything for his boys, but this was war, and no time to indulge anyone's delusions or whims. "Fight?" he said. "Well, first you'll need to show me what you've learnt. If you can scry, and if you can make our weaponry better, then it would be a waste for you to fight, it–"

"I'm going to fight for you," said Richard. "That's what I've been learning." He turned round and fixed his gaze on his tall brother. "Let me fight Edward," he said. "Single combat."

Both brothers remembered the same things then, the times they'd fought as a child. Richard fought dirty, biting and scratching and kicking, but he was never any match for his older, taller, stronger brother, and his body had always borne the marks to prove it - grazes, bruises, and once a broken arm. Edward remembered these things with remorse, Richard with a malicious anticipation of what was to come.

Edward smiled his charismatic smile. "Not me," he lied. "I'm dead beat. I couldn't fight a flea tonight."

"Tomorrow then," said Richard. "In front of your tent, father, with everyone watching. You, and George and the officers and men."

Edward and the Duke exchanged a glance. Too late to argue about it now, but they could always find an excuse in the morning, if Richard remembered.

*****

Richard awoke before dawn. Something was wrong. Perhaps it was just that everything was different. He had slept under canvas, with his brothers, and it was very different from the cottage loft he'd grown used to. No. Something was wrong. He shook George, closest to him, who groaned.

"Stop it," George slurred, somewhere between 'still drunk' and 'hungover'.

"Wake up," said Richard. "The Lancastrians are coming out of the castle. They're going to attack us." So he wouldn't be able to demonstrate his prowess on his brother after all. That was disappointing, but at the same time, a real fight, a chance to shed real blood, was better.

He went to his chest and took out the armour that Mortimer had commissioned for him, then began to clamber into it, calling one of his brother's servants to help. So, this is it, he thought. This is what it feels like to arm for battle. He remembered the old stories: Thetis arming Achilles; Venus arming Aeneas. No goddesses for him though. Unreasonable fury rising in his heart, he snatched his shield from the diligent little man, and fixed it on his withered left arm, hating himself for having made his inadequate body even worse.

As the sun rose they were assembling in the Duke's tent. "Father," said Edward, ignoring the fact that Richard stood beside him. "Are you sure this information is good? I–"

Then a messenger arrived. "Sir," he said, without ceremony. "The Lancastrians have sallied out. We await your orders."

The Duke looked ironically at his eldest son. "Yes," he said. "Quite sure."

****

Richard had been strictly ordered not to fight, of course, but everyone had more important things to do than to see that command was obeyed.

He lined up his horse behind Edward's. This was it. Now. This was his day. His only study had been to turn himself into a warrior. Magic, and exercise, and long hours of practice had turned him into a thing that was meant for war alone. He hadn't been able to change his looks, but everything else was different: muscles, bones and sinews, all honed in strength and skill to shed Lancastrian blood. And now his day was upon him, there was more too. Magic flowed through his veins, his nerves, endowing him with more-than-human energy.

He was surprised by how strange it was to him. With Mortimer's help, he had learnt what war was, what he must do, even - to an extent - how it must feel. He had learnt all the important things, but there were many things he had not learnt. How it felt to stand beside a thousand other men; to hear the stamping, snorting horses, the clink of armour, the voices that joked, the voices that gave command, all the incidental stuff that makes things real.

Then it began. Forward! He opened his mouth, and his roar melted into the whole army's din. Forward! George was on his right, Edward on his left, the three sons of York charging together, an unstoppable force of destruction.

SEVEN

One of those strange moments of quiet that shouldn't exist in the midst of a battle, and Richard recognised the armoured men in front of him as his brothers. "Let's take the castle!" he said. He was covered in blood almost from head to toe, very little of it his own.

Edward and George stared at him, the former thankful now that he hadn't accepted the challenge of single combat, all three proud to have such brothers. "Where's father?" said Edward. York hadn't planned to take the castle. Their forces weren't strong enough yet."

"I rescued him," said Richard. "Twice. The first was from some common soldier, the second from Somerset." Then he remembered. How could he have forgotten? He'd been looking forward to showing the others. He took something dark and wet from his saddle. "Hey look! I got a souvenir!"

It was the front half of Somerset's skull, which he held in front of his face like a mask. "Ooo ar!" he said in a broad Somerset accent. "I do be the Duke of Somerset."

His brothers continued staring at him.

Richard put the skull down and grinned round at them. "Get it?" he said.

After a few more seconds, Edward started to laugh a bit. "You're one creepy bastard, you know that?"

George laughed too then. "I'm glad you're on our side," he said, and slapped his brother's back.

"Let's take the castle," Richard repeated. "Come on."

*****

Marguerite had never seen Henry so insistent.

"My love," he said, "we must go. Our lives are in danger. York's men have already breached the walls."

But Suffolk. For all his talk of working as a spy, he was as helpless as a baby. More helpless.
"Whatever it is you've left behind," Henry persisted, "I will buy you another one. Come now, to the tunnels." And he took her shoulder and pushed her - pushed her! - through the hidden door.

She resisted. "No," she said, trying to push past him. "And nothing you can say can–"

"Marguerite," said Henry, drawing himself up so he was almost as tall as her. "I command you as your husband and as your King."

She stopped. What did any of this mean if she could disobey a direct command? Wouldn't that make her as bad as York? And besides, she could hear them in the castle now, and there would be no sense in her dying as well as Suffolk, and she would rather sacrifice both of them than endanger Henry. She bowed her head and returned into the tunnel.

*****

The Lancastrians were fleeing. Richard ran into a room more sumptuously decorated than the others, with women's clothes - even women's underthings - strewn here and there. He picked up one or two of the bottles on the dressing table and sniffed - the scent was heavy and floral, quite nauseating. Slyly looking around, he picked up a pair of knickers and sniffed those too, breathing in the dark, musty scent. He'd always imagined that women's parts smelled like roses and violets, but this was better! Edward once told him they smell like fish. At the time he'd thought he was joking, but he could understand now. It was sort of like fish, along with sugar and pepper and something else that was entirely itself, both strange and familiar to him, like–

But this was no time to dawdle. He stuffed the knickers in his pocket for later and went through the drawers, pocketing a few rings and a necklace, until he came to a bigger cabinet, that was locked. Without bothering to look for a key, he started hitting at the padlock with his sword. After five or six blows, the lock was still holding firm, but the door had been completely destroyed. He looked inside.

"Surprise!" said what Richard eventually recognised as the head of Suffolk. The decay wasn't too far advanced: most of the flesh was more white than green, and nothing was missing except for part of his left ear. By a sympathetic onlooker, the black on his cheeks could have been mistaken for a very bad case of acne. "You must be Richard," continued Suffolk. "I'm the Duke of Suffolk."

Richard couldn't think of anything to say. But lifted the head out, to get a better look at it, and put it carefully on the dressing table. Mortimer always said that reanimating flesh is very difficult: ghosts were much easier.

Suffolk looked down at Richard's pocket where a bit of white embroidery was poking out. "Ooh, I see you're another fan of Marguerite's knickers," he said. "Give us a sniff, would you? Don't be embarrassed! I used to do that all the time."

Richard blushed, stuffed the knickers further into his pocket, and drew his dagger.

"Hey now," said Suffolk. "You don't want to do that."

"Why not?" said Richard, through gritted teeth.

Suffolk thought for a moment. "Because while I'm around," he said, "you'll never be the ugliest person in the room."

The door swung open and in walked George, sweating and breathless. "Richard," he said. "We tortured one of the servants who said that Henry and the Frenchwoman are escaping through some passages in the cellar. Shall we ... eugh what's that?"

"It's the Duke of Suffolk," said Richard, already making for the door. "He appears to be undead. Could you find somewhere safe to put him? Don't kill him yet, he might be useful."

And without waiting for an answer, Richard made for the cellars in a half-running, half-limping gait that was far more efficient than it looked.

*****

Richard burst back into Marguerite's room. George was lolling on the bed, a bottle in his hand. "And I'll tell you another thing ..." he said. Suffolk was on the bed beside him , and George poured some wine into his open mouth. Most of it came straight out through one of the holes at the bottom of his neck, staining the white bedclothes. Richard stared in disgusted fascination.

"Oh, hello Richard," said George. "Guess what, we found some wine!"

"Guess what," replied Richard. "I killed the king."

George gaped at him, then held the bottle aloft. "I'll drink to that," he said.

"To what?" It was Edward at the door. He looked tired and grim.

"I killed the king," said Richard.

"How do you know it was him?"

"From his face on the coins? From the way the Frenchwoman screamed?" Richard grinned, hugging the happy memory to himself.

Edward nodded curtly. "Did you get his body?" he said.

Richard's smile faltered a little. "The Frenchwoman stopped me," he said. "She put up ... well, it was a kind of wall of magic, and escaped with him through the tunnels.

"Father's been captured," said Edward.

"What?" said Richard, and "no!" said George, both at once.

"Wait a minute," said Edward, pointing to Suffolk. "What's that?"

*****

"An exchange of prisoners," said Marguerite, looking pale and tired. "Yes."

Both sides were assembled in the Great Hall of Castle Barnard. The Duke of York was gagged and tied to a chair. Someone had put a paper crown on his head, and he was surrounded by guards.

At the other end of the room, Suffolk's head was on a table, doused with lamp oil, and Richard and George stood by with lighted candles. Edward and Marguerite occupied the central space, remaining several yards apart. Both were armed with swords, and Marguerite had a bodyguard with her as well.

"Wait!"

All eyes turned to the figure who had entered behind the Lancastrians. Dressed in immaculate white and crowned, he walked purposely forward through the guards until he stood beside Marguerite.

"Henry!" she said. "You should be resting! After your ... wound, you shouldn't be–"

"I should be exactly where I am," said Henry. "I feel fine. Never stronger."

"You said–" hissed George to Richard.

"Shut up," said Richard, watching closely.

Henry looked at York. "He must be tried," he said. "Take him to the dungeon."

Richard brandished his taper. "If you do that," he said, "Suffolk dies."

Henry looked at the head on the table, then at his wife, then back at the head. "Take the traitor to the dungeon," he repeated, putting his hand to his chest, puzzled. He felt afraid. But when he was afraid (as he often was) his heart beat quick and hard, and now he couldn't feel his heartbeat at all. Marguerite had said that Richard's sword had missed his heart, missed all his vital organs. "Just a minor flesh wound," she had said, when he awoke from unconsciousness to find her bandaging him up. But when he felt that horrible little limping man's sword, for a moment he thought – And why couldn't he feel it beating?

He looked around. York had been taken away. Good. If he commanded, Marguerite would be taken away too, and condemned to death as a necromancer.

"Love?" he said, voice trembling. "Suffolk? What do you know about ... Did you?"

She didn't reply. But if she was a necromancer ... if she could ... if she had ...

"Love?" he repeated. "When that sword went into my chest I felt it ... I don't know what I felt, but ..." he sighed, and looked at her imploringly.

"It was the balm," she said quickly.

"The ..."

"The balm," she repeated. "You know. 'Not all the water in the rough rude sea can wash the balm off from an anointed king.' The balm must have turned the sword aside."

Henry smiled, all fear lifting from him. Of course. The balm. That explained everything.
Then there was someone running towards him with a sword and shouting. It was the little limping man again. Good thing about that balm. Suddenly, everyone around him was fighting. He put his hands over his ears, shut his eyes, and sank to the floor.

*****

The York boys were fighting side by side again. Richard felt the warmth of his brother's bodies at each side. He smiled. There were many other people between him and Henry now, but it didn't matter. He killed two of them, three, four, five. It didn't matter how many there were, eventually he would find the usurper and the Frenchwoman and finish what he started.

But then ... a crack of thunder? No. It was louder than thunder and nearer. One of the castle walls split open and crumbled to dust. Everyone else had stopped fighting and was staring open-mouthed. Richard killed two or three more before he too stopped and looked. A massive army, bigger than the Yorkist and Lancastrian forces put together: standards billowing, helmets gleaming in the bright moonlight, and beneath the helmets, a hundred thousand terrible faces: rotting flesh and bone, grinning white teeth. And at their head, two familiar figures: he old but no longer decrepit, grey locks streaming out behind him, sitting on white charger as flashy as Edward's; she young, beautiful and only slightly translucent, riding a skeletal mare and brandishing a sword of fire.

"We are Edmund Mortimer," boomed the voice. "Only son of Philippa, only child of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, second son of Edward III. We have come to claim our throne."

The army surged forward, trampling Yorkists and Lancastrians alike beneath its hooves.
Comments 
3rd-Sep-2011 11:20 pm (UTC)
This is both twisted and brilliant. I love Margaret and Suffolk's head, and Henry being clueless, and, of course, the warning against cosmetics.
4th-Sep-2011 02:12 am (UTC)
Oh, this is brilliant. I love that Margaret dives into necromancy to bring back someone she loves. And that she also wants Henry to live. I love that Reanimated Henry is so willing to believe in the balm that has turned back the sword.

And I really, really love Richard (and the reader) thinking that he's using Mortimer, when really Mortimer is using him...and is playing a very long game indeed.

Thank you so very much!
4th-Sep-2011 07:25 am (UTC)
Oh my. I love the ending. And poor Henry...
4th-Sep-2011 10:07 am (UTC)
1) GREAT ENDING.

2) He turned to them, his large eyes seeming more watery even than usual. "It seems to me," he said, "that England is little different to those poor birds out there, quarrelling needlessly over what the Lord has given them to share."

Everyone else looked out of the window, with embarrassed, polite expressions on their faces. As though on cue the worm dropped to the ground. Henry sighed. "Alas, poor England," he said.

Marguerite coughed. "Thank you," she said.


OH HENRY.

3) Henry slept soundly, however, in the midst of a delightful dream in which he played at cards with the Marguerite, the Duke of York and Jesus, while Our Lady danced a Pavane with John the Baptist.

OH HENRY.

4) Edward looked to his father for a cue. Should he be pleased or disappointed that his brother was back? Was the boy a beloved family member, or an embarrassing burden?

A+ Edward characterisation (and through the rest of it as well, but especially that bit!)

5) How could he have forgotten? He'd been looking forward to showing the others. He took something dark and wet from his saddle. "Hey look! I got a souvenir!"

It was the front half of Somerset's skull, which he held in front of his face like a mask. "Ooo ar!" he said in a broad Somerset accent. "I do be the Duke of Somerset."

His brothers continued staring at him.

Richard put the skull down and grinned round at them. "Get it?" he said.


♥♥♥♥♥ FOREVER.
13th-Sep-2011 04:15 am (UTC)
Brilliant concept and great, nuanced characterization throughout. I'm impressed that you used so many different viewpoints within a relatively short story and that it all comes together in the end.
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